On top of the world

The Great Himalaya Trail is the mother of all hiking routes, and could be used to help impoverished mountain villages.


Nearly five years ago, Robin Boustead, a British explorer and mountaineer, started a journey across the high mountains of Nepal. He had been researching treks there for five years, having fallen in love with the Himalayas back in 1992. In September 2008 he set out. He wrote down routes, trails and distances; using GPS, he mapped water sources, villages and campsites. He crossed the entire country, marking up a 1,700-kilometre route (1,050 miles). It crossed passes as high as 6,200 metres and included 150,000 metres of climbing and descending. In July 2009 he completed the trail, having lost more than 20 per cent of his bodyweight. The first part of the Great Himalaya Trail had been completed.

Plenty of people had been trekking through and around Nepal over the past decades, but no one had mapped the trails. There was never a defined route. Having finished his journey, Boustead published his findings in a book titled Nepal Trekking and the Great Himalaya Trail: A Route and Planning Guide. But the stretch is only part of a larger plan. Once mapped, the full Great Himalaya Trail will go from the Nanga Peak in Pakistan, in the westernmost Himalayas, to Namche Barwa in Tibet, via Bhutan, China and India. The length? 4,500 kilometres (2,800 miles). Journey time? 16-18 months.


Hikers have already embarked upon the Nepal route. Most sleep in camping tents. Conveniently, the full trail is split into 10 sections that take two or three weeks each to complete. As such, there are options for climbers of all levels. There are also varying degrees of difficulty: one 150-day long ‘higher trail’ follows the very top of the mountains, while below, a ‘lower trail’ offers an easier route in the hillsides, holding an average altitude of 2,000 metres, and taking 95 days to complete.

Along the way, unforgettable experiences await. “Although the mountains are beyond compare, it is the people you meet along the trail who linger in your memory,” Boustead wrote in the Nepali Times newspaper, a few months after crossing Nepal. “You can’t help but admire their indefatigable boldness and energy, their independence and resilience, and their open-hearted, generous nature towards strangers they may never see again. It’s impossible to make a comparison, but surely the people of the high Himal are among the very best of humankind?”


As it happens, the Nepal government and NGOs have decided to help these people. To do that, they will make the most of Boustead’s trail. Hiking may already be popular in Nepal, but the lion’s share of the touristic economic benefits goes to the most established trekking areas – Everest, Annapurna and Langtang. Out of 132,000 trekkers entering Nepal in 2009, 86 per cent visited these areas. With the new trail, authorities are hoping to distribute the windfall more evenly.

In most places, help is badly needed. Several remote communities rely on food aid from charities, flown in by helicopters. In some villages, the nearest road is weeks away. Under an organisation titled The Great Himalaya Trail Development, the government, the UK Department for International Development and numerous NGOs have joined forces to make sure foreign hikers leave their money in the right places. The villages need a saviour. Let’s hope this trail can be it.

Photos: Fredy Thuerig, Galyna Andrushko, Rosliak Oleksandr [all via Shutterstock.com].